Tuesday 30 July 2013

Norwegian by Night

Finished July 30
Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller

This novel has an unlikely hero and a plot that grabs you and doesn't let go. Sheldon Horowitz is 82, and has moved to Norway to live with his granddaughter Rhea and her husband Lars following his wife's death.
Sheldon was too young for World War II, but was driven to sign up early for the Korean war. He was a Marine sniper, but told his family he was a clerk. When his son Saul came of age, there was another war, and he encouraged Saul to sign up for his country. As a Jewish-American Sheldon felt that he had a reputation to defend, and that his son should do the same. But his son didn't return from Vietnam, and Sheldon and his wife ended up raising Saul's daughter.
Sheldon's age, his guilt at Saul's death, and his love for Rhea, have all brought him to where he is now. So when he hears a bad argument from Rhea's neighbour, he is moved to do the right thing, and he opens the door and offers sanctuary to the woman and boy who are standing in fear in the hall. But the sanctuary is short-lived, and Sheldon and the boy end up fleeing.
As Sheldon moves between his knowledge of what danger the boy is in, and his own memories and guilt about the past, he relies on his training and instincts to protect the boy and get him to what he believes is a safe place.
The boy's danger comes from Enver, a Balkan man, driven by his own past and trying to cover that past no matter what the barriers might be.
And the police, Sigrid and Petter, are one step behind Sheldon, trying to find him and trying to find Enver and the evidence necessary to bring him to justice.
With humour, suspense, and wonderful characters, this book is one you will not want to put down, as you root for Sheldon to make it, and fear that he might not. A story of love, guilt, and instinct.
I love too that the cover is perfect, drawing from the plot and giving one a sense of the setting.

The Burgess Boys

Finished July 28
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

This novel tells us the story of Bob and Jim Burgess and their sister Susan. The story begins when the boys are in their fifties and Susan's teen son Zach does something unthinkable. All three adults grew up in Maine, and while Bob and Jim left, Susan stayed, married, had Zach, divorced, and just tried to do the best she could. But their town started to shrink with all the young people leaving, until it became a haven for refugees from Somalia. Zach, for reasons unclear even to him, has taken a frozen pig's head and rolled it into a building that the Somalis use as a mosque. Zack is ignorant of the meaning of his action to his victims until it becomes a rallying point in the nation for intolerance and hate.
Jim left Maine years ago, becoming well known for his successful defence of a client and going on to a big New York City law firm. Bob has also gone to New York City, but his legal career has taken a different route. Susan calls on Jim to help with Zack's situation, but it is Bob who will come with earnestness, trying to be there for his twin sister despite her feelings toward him.
Jim, Bob, and Susan, are all shaped by their father's death, run over by a car they were in, with Bob, too young to remember, supposedly responsible for moving the gear shift out of park. While this incident had a huge effect on all of them, it is something never talked about. The boys return to Maine to assist their sister brings it back to the surface in ways unexpected, and relationship changing.
This is a book about the impulses of youth, about guilt and tolerance, about how you can never really escape where you came from. A book about a family, and their baggage. A book about growth and community.

Sunday 28 July 2013

The Woman Upstairs

Finished July 27
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

This novel gives us the voice of Nora Eldridge. Nora is nearing 40, teaches third grade at an elementary school in Cambridge, and a responsible and dutiful daughter.
When the Shahid family enters her life, her dreams awaken. Dreams of being an artist, of having a child, of being in a loving relationship. Reza is in her class and his exotic looks and shy attitude draw her in. His mother Sirena is an artist working on her next installation, and her friendship and involvement of Nora in her own art give Nora hope for her own artistic dreams. His father Skandar is an intellectual who, while walking her home, engages her in interesting discussions. As she becomes more and more involved with this family, interacting with each member on an individual basis, she begins to have hopes for those dreams of hers.
The woman upstairs, is the good girl in all of us. The woman who does what is expected of her. The daughter who looks after her parents, being there when they need her. The woman who doesn't make waves. This is the woman Nora has been most of her life.
It is not until the final pages that Nora finds there is something even the woman upstairs won't accept and forgive.
This novel is about the dreams, hopes and passions that can be awakened in us. The chances we take to reach out for these, and the possibility of betrayal.

Friday 26 July 2013

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Finished July 26
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

The year is 1899, the place is small town Fentress, Texas. Calpurnia is the only girl in her family, with six brothers, three older and three younger. She is a tomboy, not interested in cooking or needlework, a girl who sneaks out of her room when everyone is napping in the midday summer heat and goes to the river, stripping down and floating in the cool water.
Her interest in nature gradually brings her into contact with her grandfather, a man she has been wary of until the discovery of a shared interest. When the local librarian refuses to give her access to Charles Darwin's book without a note from her parents, her grandfather kindly loans her his copy. As the two spend time together, observing nature, gathering samples and noting what they observe, Calpurnia has a whole new world opened to her, but will she be allowed to break out of the traditional life her mother envisions for her to follow her own dreams?
Each chapter opens with a quote from The Origin of Species, applicable to that chapter's developments. It's a great book, seeing the expectations for a girl of her generation and place, and the changes coming in the future years. Her grandfather is encouraging and sympathetic, but is his influence enough to assist Calpurnia in her new dreams.

Thursday 18 July 2013


Finished July 17
HHhH by Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor, read by John Lee

This is one of the most interesting novels I've ever read. Let's start with the title, which is an acronym for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich, which translated to English is Himmler's brain is called Heydrich. The Heydrich of this book is Reinhard Heydrich, an high-ranking Nazi officer, one of the organizers of Kristallnacht, responsible for coming up with the final solution for the Jews, who was in charge of the Nazi-occupied Czech Republic at the time of his assassination where he worked to suppress Czech culture, and was an extremely cruel man. He had many nicknames: The Butcher of Prague, The Blond Beast, The man with the iron heart, . He was also president of Interpol at the time
Two men, a Slovak and a Czech were recruited by the Czech government in exile and the British to carry out the assassination. Their names are Jozef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš, and they were parachuted into the occupied nation by the British in an attempt to keep any blame falling on the local people. Their task was codenamed Operation Anthropoid. During the assassination attempt, the British gun they were using jammed, and a bomb was thrown at the car instead, injuring Heydrich. At first the men thought that the assassination attempt was unsuccessful as Heydrich was taken to the hospital and operated on by a German doctor, but he ended up dying of an infection a few days later.
This book goes into the the history of all three men, the situation in the Czech Republic and the growing unhappiness of the people there. It also talks about the repercussions of the assassination where two villages were razed to the ground and almost all the inhabitants killed, many others were tortured, and the men were betrayed by one of the own comrades.
Besides all of that extremely interesting story, the author is himself a character of a sort in the book, as he describes his research, his passion for the subject, the troubles of writing about real historical figures and events, what is created and what is fact. Binet writes something, correct it, wonders aloud, and looks for more and more information until he realizes he must focus.
A fascinating style, and totally engrossing story based on real and horrible events.

Monday 15 July 2013

The Lavender Garden

Finished July 15
The Lavender Garden by Lucinda Riley

This novel has elements of mystery, romance, and historical fiction. Set mostly in France the story jumps back and forth between the present and World War II. As the novel begins, 30-year-old Emilie de la Martinieres is dealing with the death of her mother. An only child, Emilie lost her father when she was 14, and has never had a strong relationship with her fashionable, socially active mother. As the only surviving member of one of the wealthiest families in France, Emilie never felt that she fit into the life she was born into. She has made a career as a veterinarian and her first response is to get rid of both homes, but being back in the family chateau brings back good memories and she reconsiders.
When a young Englishman, Sebastian Carruthers, approaches her, she at first rebuffs him, but her politeness takes over, and she responds to his offers of friendship and assistance. He does prove very helpful, and Emilie begins to think there might be a future with him.
This is a story of a young woman growing up with all the comforts of life except those of loving parents. While her father did show her affection, he was usually distracted and spent little time with her. Her mother's expectations and lack of concern led to her lack of confidence and self-doubt. With the loss of her last parent, Emilie must finally find her true independence and grow up, dealing with finances, managing property, and being responsible for others.
On the historical end, Emilie begins to look at her past, and is interested to find that Sebastian's grandmother, Constance, had a connection to her father Edouard during the war. As she digs deeper into their story, she finds more to connect her with her parents, and insights into the personalities of the people in her life. And she finds she has more strengths than she gave herself credit for.
This novel had the same feel as the novels of Kate Morton, with the blend of history and contemporary, mystery and romance. A good read.

Saturday 13 July 2013

The Love of My (Other) Life

Finished July 12
The Love of My (Other) Life by Traci L. Slatton

I wasn't sure what to expect from this novel, but I got a lot. It was sexy, funny, quirky and totally enjoyable.
Tessa is behind in her maintenance payments on her coop in a big way, having trouble ever since the split from her husband. She works for very little money for a local church assisting seniors with all kinds of problems they have. But the church is also having money issues. On a positive note, after two years of not being able to produce any art, Tessa is back painting again, and the inspirations for painting just keep coming. But can she restart her career again.
Brian Tennyson is a physics professor, but when he appears suddenly in Tessa's life, seeming to know her, she doesn't know if he is crazy, homeless, or both. Somehow, though, she knows he doesn't pose any danger to her. What she doesn't understand at first, is that he is from a parallel life, a life in which he was married to Tessa.
I really liked the parallel lives angle, and the connection between Tessa and Brian was done well. Tessa's character in particular was given depth, with history, her friends and her job, her worries and passions. Brian was a little less so, but then he is in Tessa's world here, not his own, so that kind of felt right.
I loved the humour, and the message around body image. All in all, a really good read.

Tuesday 9 July 2013


Finished July 9
Ru by Kim Thúy

This was the winner of the Governor General's Award for Fiction and is drawn from the author's own experiences in Vietnam as a child, fleeing as one of the boat people, making a new life in Montreal, and returning to Vietnam as an adult. It is written in very short segments, some only a couple of sentences, some a few pages. It jumps back and forth in time between various points in childhood and adulthood. It is strong with memories, evoking a situation, a feeling, an encounter.
It is a very different book, hard to define, and leaving one with a feeling of being somewhere else. The reader is drawn into the thoughts and feelings of the narrator through the wonderful language used to bring these scenes to life. This is a book describing love, in all its many forms. And it is a book showing the lengths people will go to for survival, for a chance to live.

Cat Daddy

Finished July 9
Cat Daddy: what the world's most incorrigible cat taught me about life, love, and coming clean by Jackson Galaxy with Joel Derfner, read by the author

This memoir is by Jackson Galaxy, known for his show My Cat from Hell on Animal Planet. I haven't watched the show, but I was attracted by the title and finding out he earns his living as a cat behaviorist. Galaxy talks about his special relationship with cats and the very special cat, Benny, that influenced his life in a big way. The two first met when Galaxy was working at an animal shelter, trying to make it as a rock musician and spending most of his earnings on drugs and alcohol. Benny showed up with a shattered pelvis from a bad encounter with a car, and Galaxy was pressed to foster him. But he ending up bonding with Benny and through his work with cats and love for Benny, he eventually came clean, getting the drugs and alcohol out of his life. He then developed a weight problem, eventually weighing over 400 pounds. But Benny helped him through that as well. There is a lot about his work with cats, but also a lot about his struggles with addiction, denial, and finding his calling. A very inspiring memoir.

Sunday 7 July 2013

Dairy Queen

Finished July 7
Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

This novel is the first in the series featuring D.J. Schwenk. D.J. is almost sixteen as the novel begins and has been taking on the majority of work on her familiy's dairy farm for the last five months. Her older brothers are off at a football camp, her father has hip trouble, her mom is busy working two jobs, and she stepped in and did what needed to be done. But it has gone on longer than she thought it would and things are starting to get to her. Her younger brother Curtis is the quiet one in the family, and he doesn't seem to be talking to her much either. Then Brian Nelson shows up at the farm. He is quarterback at the rival school and a bit of a jerk, and D.J. can't figure out why he is there, until he tell them his coach is making him.
But what starts out as a hassle turns into something else. And D.J. starts wondering about what makes her happy, and what would happen if she really tried to do it. And so she thinks about trying out for the football team herself.
This is a story about a young woman finding her way. About responsibility and life choices. About love and families, and communication. It sure has me wanting to read the next book.

Friday 5 July 2013

Never Fall Down

Finished July 5
Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

This is a novel, but it is based on a real life story. Based on the real boy Arn Chorn, this story is set in Cambodia from 1975 through 1979, with some follow-up to Arn following his move to the United States. Arn is eleven as the story begins. He has four sisters (3 older, 1 younger) and a younger brother. His parents were singers and ran an opera house and company until the illness and death of his father. At that point, his mother left the children with their aunt as she went elsewhere in the country for work. Arn helps the family out by selling whatever he can find on the street, gambling, and dancing for tourists. His family can't afford school for him. When the Khmer Rouge revolution starts, everyone is forced to leave the city, leaving most of their belongings aside. Much of what they do take is lost during the many days march to labour camps. Arn is separated from his family at this point, but remembers his aunt's words to "Do whatever they say. Be like the grass. Bend low, bend low, then bend lower. The wind blow one way, you bow that way. It blow the other way, you do, too. That is the way to survive".
At first Arn works in the rice fields, but later he is made to become a musician and his skill here helps him to survive. As the country nears liberation, Arn is forced to become a soldier. His experiences of loss, violence and inhumanity are difficult to read about let alone experience, and Arn has a lot of mental anguish from his experience. Following his freedom and his adoption into an American family, he learns to deal with his past, and becomes a man of peace.
This book is based on many interviews with Arn and other survivors that he knew as well as historical research on the Cambodian tragedy.
I found it interesting to compare it with the novel In the Shadow of the Banyan, also based on a child's experiences surviving the Killing Fields of Cambodia. The children came from different classes, but had much similar experiences, both losing most of the their family members and being separated from those they loved as they struggled to survive.

Thursday 4 July 2013

An Ignoble Profession

Finished July 4
An Ignoble Profession by Louis Sanders, translated by Michael Woosnam-Mills

This novel, set in the Dordogne region of France, involves British ex-pats with secrets.In the local bookstore, Richard Carter finds a novel that shocks him. He recognizes himself as one of the characters, and some things he wouldn't want made public are there. He also recognizes two other men in the community, and approaches them about the book. Lord Michael Bollington has a few secrets exposed in the novel, some of them potentially criminal. Johnny McGuire has found some underhanded ways to get the money to support his lifestyle. These two involve a fourth man that they recognize, Mark Olson, a man with a past in animal rights activism. All four men put their heads together to try to figure out who is behind the novel. When they think they have it figured out and take action that they believe will prevent any further disclosure, a second novel appears, exposing them further. As they begin to suspect each other, things go out of control.
An interesting look at human nature and an ex-pat community.

Chanda's Secrets

Finished July 4
Chanda's Secrets by Allan Stratton

This children's novel comes before the story continued in Chanda's Wars. Chanda is sixteen, and as the book begins her youngest sister, Sara, eighteen months, has died. Chanda's mother is grieving and her step-father is drunk, so she begins the process of organizing the funeral. With her mother lost in grief, Chanda has taken on   most of the household chores as well as going to school. Her step-father hardly comes home and when he finally does, he appears to be dying, but disappears soon after. Chanda's mother's headaches grow worse and she decides to go back to their home village for a visit on the advice of a traditional healer.
Meanwhile, Chanda's friend Esther struggles to make a life for herself, trying to earn enough to bring her family back together. Rumors start and Chanda is told to spend less time with her friend lest her reputation suffer as well. But Chanda values her friendship first and stands beside her friend no matter what. She also finds herself strong enough to reveal her own secret and be open about the illness that has become so common in their community.
A story about families, friendship, truth, and never giving up on your dreams.

The Blood-Dimmed Tide

Finished July 3
The Blood-Dimmed Tide by Rennie Airth

This novel is part of the John Madden mystery series. I have read her earlier book River of Darkness. Madden has left Scotland Yard to live the life of a farmer, and his wife Helen guards him from police work as much as she can. The year is 1932, and coming home one day, John and Helen drive through a nearby village where they can see something is happening. They stop to see if they can be of assistance, and find the village is searching for a missing girl. John joins in the search and is the one to discover the body. When another body is found, Scotland Yard is called in, and Madden is drawn into the case despite Helen's protection.
Evidence leads to the discovery of similar cases on the Continent and the search is on for a cold-blooded man fixated on young girls. This story involves many elements. The lives of tramps, on the road for a variety of reasons. Economic straits of the Great Depression causing many to lose their homes and scramble to find work to support their families. Men who survived the war, but never really recovered from it, living with what we would now call PTSD. The trend by those in charge to protect their own, and believe the end justifies the means. The growing political situation in Europe with the rise of the Nazis. All this makes for a great story that is more than just a good mystery.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

The 7th Canadian Book Challenge

Another year of the Canadian Book Challenge begins. Nice theme of 7 for the logo this year too.

I am entering this challenge for the third time. For last year, the 6th, I read 37 books. The previous year, I hit 100. I think I will try for 50 this year. We'll see how it goes.

The Lullaby of Polish Girls

Finished July 2
The Lullaby of Polish Girls by Dagmara Dominczyk

This novel follows three young Polish women through their adolescence and young womanhood. Anna emigrated to the United States with her family when she was seven, refugees due to her father's involvement with the Solidarity movement. She first returns to Poland at the age of thirteen, and befriends Justyna, a girl her own age, whose mother was friends with her own mother. Another young girl Kamila, also friends with Justyna begins to write her, and for several years after Anna returns to Poland for the summer, a time of year where she is the envied one, stylish and well-off. The rest of the year she wears her mother's hand-me-downs and works part-time jobs to raise money for her summer holidays, definitely not the cool girl at school, Justyna is promiscuous and uninterested in school, dropping out early to work, marrying young and having a child soon after. Kamila is, early on, the fat friend, but soon overcomes that. She never regains the confidence she should have however and falls in love early with another friend, a boy himself conflicted about his sexuality. The three young women connect, grow apart and reconnect repeatedly due to their personalities and the summer only link to Anna. The story moves back and forth over the years, so their stories are revealed in excerpts, with background getting revealed after following events, and links between events coming to light later. The story reveals the lives of young people in Poland as it emerges from the Iron Curtain, showing both the uncertainty of these characters lives, and the strong links between them. A fascinating tale.

The Village

Finished June 29
The Village by Nikita Lalwani

This novel is set in southern India, in a unique prison, an open village. All the prisoners have been found guilty of murder and have exhibited good behaviour in traditional prisons, allowing them the opportunity to come here for the remainder of their sentence. Their families live here with them (a requirement), and they learn skills that are transferable to their future life. They may work outside the Village, even start their own businesses. The local governor is behind the project, having come up with the idea. Ray is the main character here, and she is a BBC journalist who has come here to direct a documentary about the prison. She and two others from the BBC, Serena and Nathan will live in the village for several weeks, getting to know the people who live there and tell their story. But the three have different ideas about how to go about this, and different motivations. For Ray, it is the first project that she has brought forward the idea for, and despite her experience on other projects, she lacks confidence. Ray is also of Indian heritage herself, and the only one of the three who can speak the language. Because of the cultural knowledge and language ability, she is able to get to know people there in a different way than the others. Serena is a few years older than Ray, with more experience, a woman who just wants to get a good story and get on with things. She can be very focussed, but tends to treat the inmates as characters rather than real people. Nathan has his own experience with prison, for a lesser crime, and is a bit of a handsome rafe. As Ray begins to make connections with the people and finds out their stories, she also finds herself torn between compassion and getting a good story. She finds herself pressured to press upon those in the village to take actions that aren't necessarily in their best interests. It is an interesting story that shows the common theme of westerners coming in and taking advantage of people of another culture. It also shows the mixed emotions of the prisoners themselves, who feel compelled to participate in this life for the benefits it gives them despite the true wishes of their families. It shows the ego of both the journalists and the governor in their sense of knowing what is best without asking those involved. Some of the stories too show the conflicted nature of the crimes, many of which were committed in self-defense. An interesting look at a difficult issue.

Killing Floor

Finished June 27
Killing Floor by Lee Child

I love the Jack Reacher novels, but missed a few at the beginning, so going back now and catching those ones. This is the very first in the series. On a whim, Reacher decides to get off a bus on the highway near Margrave, Georgia. His brother had mentioned a long-dead jazz musician, Blind Blake, who had supposedly died in Margrave, and Reacher decided to see if there were any old folks who had known the man. It takes him few hours to walk towards the town and he stops on the outskirts to eat in a cafe. Before he can finish his breakfast, he is arrested for murder. As he tries to figure out what is going on and why the finger was pointed at him, he finds himself in a town with a secret, a secret some will go to any lengths to keep. A prominent family has build a facility there recently and offered a number of grants to the townspeople, but it isn't clear how they are profitable. A local man with a history in the banking industry seems to be tied to the intrigue, but he is afraid to talk to Reacher, even after Reacher saves his life in prison. The chief of detectives, a man relatively new to town, Finlay, believes in Reacher, and asks for his assistance. Without knowing who to trust, a small group of people chip away at the facade, looking for the truth. When Reacher discovers a personal connection to the case, he is on the case to the end.
A great beginning to the series, with lots of nice twists and turns, a bit of a romance with a local police officer, and a compelling story. I especially liked the tie-in to the musician; that seemed to draw everything to a close nicely.

Monday 1 July 2013

6th Canadian Book Challenge Wrap-Up

This is my wrap-up post for this challenge, which started July 1, 2012 and ended June 30, 2013.

I've read 37 Canadian books over that time period.
Below is my list.

1. Cities of Refuge by Michael Helm, fiction set in Toronto
2. Thirst by Shree Ghatage, fiction set in England
3. Just the Rules by Tosca Reno, about healthy eating
4. The Accidental Captives by Carolyn Gossage, history from World War II
5. Guardians of Being by Eckhart Tolle, about happiness
6. Trust Your Eyes by Linwood Barclay, thriller set in the United States
7. Forgotten Highways by Nicky Brink and Stephen R Bown, about walking in the Rockies
8. The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny, mystery set in Quebec
9. A Door in the River by Inger Ash Wolfe, mystery set in Ontario
10. The Emperor of Paris by C.S. Richardson, fiction set in Paris
11. Watching the Dark by Peter Robinson, mystery set in England and Estonia
12. Choose It and Lose It by Rose Reisman, about healthy eating
13. Whirl Away by Russell Wangersky, short stories set in various Canadian places
14. The Honey Locust by Jeffrey Round, fiction set in Ontario, Sarajevo, and Mexico
15. Chanda's Wars by Allan Stratton, children's fiction set in Africa
16. The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King, about natives in North America
17. Death by Prescription by Terence H. Young, about the dangers of prescription drugs
18. The Next One to Fall by Hilary Davidson, mystery set in Peru
19. Anna from Away by D.R. MacDonald, fiction set in Cape Breton
20. Dear Lila compiled by Robert H. Blackburn, historical letters from Alberta
21. Burma Effect by Michael E. Rose, thriller set in Thailand and Burma
22. Letters from the Lost by Helen Waldstein Wilkes, letters from occupied Europe
23. Everybody Has Everything by Katrina Onstad set in Toronto
24. Deep Leadership by Joe MacInnis, about leadership
25. Bow Grip by Ivan E. Coyote, fiction set in Alberta
26. Queen of Hearts by Martha Brooks, teen fiction set in Manitoba in the 1940s
27. Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley mystery fiction set in England in the 1950s
28. Word from New France, selected letters from the 1600s, from one of Canada's first nuns.
29. Counting Back from Nine by Valerie Sherrard, a teen novel written in poetry.
30. Testify by Valerie Sherrard, a teen novel about the nature of truth.
31. Authentic Letters from Upper Canada, letters from the 1830s back to Ireland
32. The Lion Seeker by Kenneth Bonert, historical fiction set around World War II in Jewish South Africa
33. The Wild Beasts of Wuhan by Ian Hamilton, 3rd in the Ava Lee thriller series
34. Train I Ride by Kit Robinson, a chapbook of poetry
35. The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire, a graphic novel.
36. Mount Pleasant by Don Gillmor, a novel of a man and money.
37. Travelling Light by Peter Behrens, a collection of short stories